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Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In Memoriam

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1850

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Summary and Study Guide


Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam AHH explores the cosmic implications of the death of a college friend (his sister’s fiancé), poet Arthur Henry Hallam, who died quite unexpectedly in 1833 at the age of 22 most likely from a cerebral hemorrhage. The poem is among the most ambitiously conceived philosophical poems in the English language and a monument to the dynamics of how Christians themselves grapple with the thorny question of mortality. The work stands today among the most respected and the most eloquent expressions of the Victorian epoch’s so-called wisdom literature.

It can be, however, a daunting thing to read for a contemporary audience. More than 15 years in the drafting, In Memoriam is a gathering of 133 separate songs, or cantos, of differing lengths, plus a Prologue and an Epilogue. The work has no single clear driving narrative; rather, the poet muses from different perspectives and at different times about the meaning of life given the inevitability of death. The poem all together exceeds 2000 lines divided into tight quatrains that are themselves sculpted in careful iambic pentameter and follow strict ABBA rhyme. Within these cantos, Tennyson explores the dimensions of grief. In examining the impact of death, the function of the soul, and specifically the place of the Christian God in a world where everything must inevitably concede to the curve of death, Tennyson, although he ultimately affirms the power of faith and his trust in the oversight of God, gave voice to his era’s growing uncertainties, given the advances in science, over the very efficacy of God. Although an established poet when In Memoriam appeared in 1850, the landmark work established Tennyson’s reputation and helped secure his appointment to the position of Poet Laureate in the same year.

Poet Biography

The story of Alfred Tennyson’s improbable, if meteoric, rise to international prominence as the poetic giant of Victorian England is one of the most familiar in the canon of 19th-century British literature. Born in 1809 in the tiny village of Somersby near the North Sea some two hours west of London, the son of a cleric who had alcoholism as well as a mental health condition, Tennyson, by nature socially awkward, early on distinguished himself as a gifted student and a voracious reader, particularly the epic works of the great poets in Antiquity. On the strength of a poem he submitted and won as part of a competition, Tennyson was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met Arthur Hallam, the de factor leader of a tight coterie of aspiring poets and artists. The friendship would have a profound impact on Tennyson long after Hallam’s sudden death in 1833. By then, Tennyson had begun publishing his own verse, two volumes in the early 1830s, but found his verse received indifferently: critics, although admiring Tennyson’s skillful metrics, dismissed his poems as too philosophical, too abstract.

Over the next decade, Tennyson, unhappy with such criticism and reeling from Hallam’s death and now facing poverty after his father’s death, withdrew from the public and began crafting as a kind of therapy what would become the cantos of In Memoriam. He struggled with eccentric treatments designed to address his deepening melancholy but found peace largely in his art. His collection, Poems, published in 1842 to glowing reviews, secured Tennyson at last sufficient financial security. He married and began to grow more confident in his position as poet. In 1850 In Memoriam received lavish praise, including the attention of Queen Victoria, who would find Tennyson’s affirmation of the Christian God in the face of devastating grief great comfort in her own struggle to adjust to the death in 1861 of her Prince Consort Albert. When the much-revered Poet Laureate William Wordsworth, the iconic architect of British Romanticism, died at the age of 80 in 1850, Queen Victoria herself pushed for Tennyson to be appointed Poet Laureate.

Now in his mid-forties, Tennyson was among the most popular and respected (and wealthiest) poets in England. By contemporary standards, he was a celebrity, his distinctive beard, flowing cape, and heavy frame making him a fixture in British pop culture. Over the next four decades, a remarkable record of productivity, Tennyson completed many of his signature, and most frequently recited, works, most notably “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” as well as a series of formidable volumes retelling the Arthurian legends. Well into his seventies, Tennyson conducted massively popular public readings in both England and America in which he gave dramatic and lyrical voice to his own works to thunderous applause. In 1884, Queen Victoria elevated her favorite poet to a peerage: Tennyson, the son of a dipsomaniac village minister, became Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He died at the age of 84 on 6 October 1892, according to urban legend, while reading Shakespeare. When news reached the streets, a nation grieved over what felt like the passing of an era. Tennyson was interred in Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey, considered the highest tribute any British writer can be given.

Poem Text

Lord Tennyson, Arthur. “In Memoriam.” Internet Archive.


Prologue-Canto 20

The poem begins as a sobering address to Jesus Christ, the “strong son of God” (Line 1). The poet acknowledges that although Christ has never revealed himself to contemporary humanity, “[t]hou wilt not leave us in the dust” (Line 9), meaning that faith sustains trust in Christ’s guidance and his omnipotence and his wisdom. What troubles the poet is that death seems to render life pointless. Here he acknowledges his own grief over his dead friend and begs Christ to forgive him: “Forgive my grief for one removed” (line 37). He understands his grief is a sin, a measure of his uncertainty over God’s presence. He ponders his friend now buried and how the gnarled roots of the cemetery’s yew tree can thrust themselves through and around his decaying bones. He addresses Sorrow itself in Canto 3 and clamors how nature seems cruel, able to go on blithely with “music in her tone” (Line 9) without acknowledging the reality of death. His heart is too heavily burdened with grief; he argues in Canto 5 that writing about the dimensions of his grief has helped but that the wisdom offered by friends—they assure him you have other friends and that everyone goes through mourning—seems empty. In Canto 6, he considers the especial plight of Hallam’s parents and the measure of their grief over a young son they will never see again.

Cantos 9-14 trace the journey of Hallam’s corpse across the sea from Italy. The poet imagines the gloomy atmosphere on the ship, the bell striking sadly in the night, a constant wind across the deck like a keening as his friend heads home. The poet recreates his own journey to the port to welcome his friend home. Amid all the solemn pomp, the poet feels isolated in his woe, weeping for his friend in Canto 13 at “An awful thought, a life removed” (Line 10). Canto 15 is an extended rumination of the rising, howling wind that roars and unsettles the woods, the animals, the trees. In Canto 16, he compares that howling wind to the grief that shakes his soul, his soul at once “calm despair and wild unrest” (Line 2). Over the next three cantos, the poet first asks what most troubles his soul, a prayer as an anything-but-rhetorical question he directs to God: why let us suffer? Why give me this friendship only to so absolutely, so completely “widow” (Line 24) me? No matter the eloquence of his grief or the boldness of his questioning, he still struggles, as Canto 20 closes, to accept his friend his gone.

Cantos 21-49

Cantos 21-23 offer the poet a chance to address directly his dead friend and assure him even as a memory that the strategy of getting over his death is not viable. I sing, he argues, because I must, because the grief is too real, too pressing. He allows his memory to recall the lazy afternoon meanders with his friend, but every time he approaches the happiness of recollection, the shadows that dazzle him and try to comfort him, he remembers, such as in Canto 22, that his friend is now “wrapt […] formless in the fold” (Line 19)—wrapped for burial. In Canto 25, he ponders that his life had value, worth, and merit only from that friendship: “I loved the weight I had to bear” (Line 7). He reasons that, despite the depth of his loss, he does not envy the animals, the trees, those organisms uncomplicated by a soul or by the rhythms of love. Despite his sorrow, the speaker offers one of the most well-known verses in Canto 27: ‘“Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” (Lines 13-16).

The poem then moves into what will be the first of three scenes set at different Christmas times. The gaiety of the holiday season, the wreaths, the holly, the happy gatherings around fireplaces, are tempered here by the sadness of the poet’s grief. In Canto 31, he cannot help but ask how such merriment and such elevated religious optimism (Christ is the “light that shone when Hope was born” [Line 32]), can exist given the pressing reality of death that renders such festivities darkly, deeply ironic. He turns briefly to the parable of Lazarus, Christ’s friend whom he raised from the dead to the amazement and terror his loving sisters. Tennyson’s mind assures him in Canto 35 that the parable of Lazarus should convince him not to linger in the vacant darkness” (Line 16) to find Canto 36’s “hope in dust” (Line 4). Nothing comforts him, he realizes in Canto 39, save his own songs that offer “a gleam of solace” (Line 8).

In Canto 41, the poet acknowledges for the first time the passing of the seasons. Despite the movement through time, “growing winters” and “scented springs” (Line 41) still leave him unable to quiet his sorrow in Canto 41. He grapples with accepting now that he and his friend will not grow old together. In Canto 44, he ponders the parallels between sleep and death, how the “happy dead” (Line 1) of Canto 45 forget time and embrace eternity, while sleep is only a temporary surcease of sorrow from his lost friend. Cantos 41-48 speak eloquently of love on earth, imperfect and temporary, but stunning, comparing it to a guiding star, an enticing open field, and a cozy fire. In Canto 49, he rouses in himself the strength to seek the comfort of poetry, which he describes as “short swallow-flights of song” (Line 14).

Cantos 50-70

His art, the poet decides, is his comfort. Be near me, he begs in Canto 51 when nights are long, when his “light” (Line 1) is low, when his faith is dry. What is he to do, however, when the spirit of his friend, his love, draws close to him? He wonders in Canto 53 why he longs for the dead, for the impossible fantasy of his friend walking again with him. he then surmises that “[m]y words are only words” (Line 3), meaning that art cannot entirely comfort him. It is then, in Canto 56, that the poet considers the soul, the agency that alone might lift his troubled spirits from the gentle soft prison of nature with its inevitable rhythm of death. Initially, he contemptuously dismisses God as a clumsy and manifestly inept creator in Canto 57: “I bring to life, I bring to death” (Line 6). Life, under God’s stewardship, is fragile, frail, and futile. Canto 58, however, quickly acts to check the poet’s movement toward rejecting God: “We do him wrong / To sing so wildly” (Line 3). He is left then despondent. He even addresses his Sorrow and resolves because he still loves his friend that his grief will not lessen over time. Canto 65 is perhaps the emotional nadir of the poem as the poet contemplates the scenario of a happy man, a gifted man, who marries well, whose life is animated by good fortune who must like everyone else slide into death and the chilling reality of how quickly, how easily he will be forgotten. It is here that the poet begins his own swing toward affirmation, beginning in Cantos 67-70 when, as the poet struggles through another sleepless night in Canto 68, he is imbued with a “mystic glory” (Line 9), his bedroom alight with an aura of enlightenment. This leads to clarity in Canto 69: “I wake, and I discern the truth” (Line 14).

Cantos 71-91

The poet acknowledges in Canto 74 that “[w]e pass” (Line 9), all of us, inevitably, ingloriously. But faith preserves about that inevitability the light of purpose and the glory of meaning. “It rests with God” (Line 12). In this, the poet argues that when a corpse is studied, the face, the very likeness, seems different, that something undefinable but undeniable comes through, strangely animating the cold, dead visage. What good, the poet continues to argue in Canto 74, is bewailing the ephemeral nature of life, the passing grace of talent, the intensities and ironies of love. “While we breathe beneath the sun” (Line 14), he says in Canto 76, those manifestations of the heart, the soul, and the spirit are everything, so that when death comes, the species—humanity itself—survives even if the individual parts and individuals themselves do not survive. Without the soul, however, such relentless energies are bleak, brutal. In Canto 79, the poem returns to Christmas season; this time the focus is on the cold and hard press of winter itself and how the season seems strikingly out of sync with nature. He bewails his lost friend and sinks deeper into his melancholy. He is alone and lost in his dreams until Canto 85, where he reinvigorates his faith in the crucified Christ, whose powerful passion defined the hope that death cannot, will not be the last word. “My pulses,” he claims, “therefore beat again” (Line 5). He acknowledges his aching loneliness in the next canto, how he longs for “another living breast” (Line 116), and how he yearns for peace. Yet in Canto 90 the poet inters himself once again in a memory of sharing a spring day in Italy with the lost Arthur.

Cantos 92-109

The poet longs to leave the ghosts, fearing his time with ghosts makes him a ghost as well. He feels the weight, the cold touch of the dead, but what he realizes he is feeling in Canto 96 is not the chilling weight of dead memory but rather the “living soul” (Line 33) of the dead, testimony to the reality of the spirit. The poet introduces the character of his sister, whose impending marriage will frame the closing cantos. It is his sister, with her “light-blue eyes” (Line 2), who tells him in Canto 97 that doubt is “devil-born” (Line 7). The poet at last acknowledges that “honest doubt” (Line 104) is part of faith. In turn, he observes in Canto 103 the deep passion and simple unaffected love with which his sister regards the man she is to marry, “two spirits of a diverse love” (Line 7), two spirits ready to merge into one even as the lovers “mix in one another’s arms” (Line 23).

In Canto 105, the poet moves again into the Christmas season. Now he insists despite the heavy dead of winter that the bells ring out, wild in the night, happy in the night. “The year is going, let him go” (Line 7), he affirms in Canto 107. The poem erupts in a celebration of life, love, newness, and hope. In Cano 109, the poet says, “I will not shut me from my kind” (Line 1), imbued again with energy.

Cantos 110-133 (Epilogue)

The poem grandly moves into the spring; by Canto 117, April is opening the earth, buds and blossoms tuned to spring’s call. Certainly, he still feels the powerful join to his dead friend, but now these are moments of “happy commune” (Line 14). In Canto 120, the poet responds, “I smell the meadows in the street / I hear the chirp of birds” (Lines 41-42). In his thoughts, he feels in Canto 124 the loving pressure of the spirit-hand of his dead friend: “I cannot think the thing farewell” (Line 21). He then embraces his faith and, in Canto 125, turns again to “the power in the darkness” (Line 51): God. Love is all, he attests, and all is in His presence, the confidence in faith that God is directing what appears otherwise to be chaos and maddening confusion. “Thy voice,” he affirms in Canto 131, is in “the rolling air” (Line 1) itself. The poet now hears the clarion voice of God in the streams, in the winds, in nature itself. He testifies to the depth of his love for God and the comfort he finds in His voice.

The lengthy Epilogue is a celebration of his sister’s wedding. Regret, he says in Canto 133, is dead, love is alive: “love is more / Than in the summers that have flown” (Line 133). He gives away his sister in the ceremony and the lovers exchange vows. When the wedding party, departing the church, moves past the churchyard where his friend is buried, for the poet all is sunny, all is light. God, “one law, one element” (Line 142), directs, defines, contains, controls, inevitably buries but joyously lifts the “whole creation” (Line 144).